Postpartum swelling (edema)

Delivery brings an end to many of the pregnancy symptoms you've dealt with over the last nine months. But you may have to live with at least one symptom – puffiness – for just a bit longer. Swollen feet, legs, and hands can stay with you for a week or more after you deliver, as your body continues to rid itself of the excess fluid it held onto during your pregnancy. The name for this is postpartum swelling, or postpartum edema. Postpartum swelling is usually nothing to worry about, and it should go away on its own within a week or so. But a few less common symptoms that accompany the swelling are worth telling your doctor or midwife about.

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Is postpartum swelling normal?

Yes. It's perfectly normal to have some swelling after your baby's birth. During pregnancy, hormones cause your body to retain fluid. In fact, that extra liquid can make your blood volume increase by almost 50 percent. Those same hormones – at least some of them – take a while to go back to pre-pregnancy levels.

When fluid builds up in areas like your face, hands, or feet, the swelling may become obvious. The force of gravity can push the fluid downward into your ankles and feet and make these areas swell more, especially if you stand a lot.

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After you give birth, your body gradually eliminates the built-up fluid through urine and sweat. But it takes up to two weeks for your body to fully remove all that fluid. 

Signs of postpartum edema to watch out for

The typical signs of postpartum edema include:

  • Swelling or puffiness under the skin in your feet and ankles
  • Skin that looks stretched
  • Indentations when you press down on your skin for a few seconds
  • Quick weight gain over a period of a few days

Expect these symptoms to improve on their own within about a week.

Certain signs indicate that the swelling is more than just edema. Something more serious could be going on if you also have symptoms like:

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Redness, warmth, or pain under the skin in one leg
  • Swelling of the face and hands

Postpartum edema treatments

There aren't any specific postpartum edema treatments. But you can do a few things to minimize the discomfort at home until the swelling goes down on its own:

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  • Elevate your feet on a pillow whenever you have a chance to lie down. Keep them above the level of your heart. If your hands and fingers are swollen, raise them above your head when you're resting.
  • Try to drink more water. Though it sounds contradictory, drinking more water actually helps, because your body is less likely to hold on to fluid when it's well-hydrated.
  • Use the bathroom as often as possible. Peeing gets rid of any extra fluid you've built up.
  • Keep moving to improve blood circulation. You might take a walk or try other light exercises once you've checked with your healthcare provider to make sure it's safe.
  • Put on a pair of compression stockings. They put pressure on your legs to prevent fluid from pooling in your feet and ankles.
  • Be careful about eating salt. Too much of it will make your body hold onto fluid.

When to call your provider about postpartum swelling

Postpartum edema should go away on its own in about a week. Though it could last a few days longer if preeclampsia, or pregnancy-related high blood pressure, caused excess swelling of your feet and hands in late pregnancy.

Postpartum swelling is rarely serious, but it's a good idea to let your healthcare provider know if the swelling doesn't go down within a week or so. Call right away if you notice these more serious symptoms:

  • You have bad headaches, dizziness, blurry vision or swelling of the face and hands, which could be signs of preeclampsia.
  • You have swelling, severe pain, or warmth in only one leg, which could signal a blood clot.
  • You have severe swelling along with chest pain or difficulty breathing, which could be signs of a blood clot in the lung, or a rare but dangerous heart condition.
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Marzena Laskowska (2019) Eclampsia – emergency condition in obstetrics: case reports of two patients, Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 39:8, 1171-1172, DOI: 10.1080/01443615.2019.1598342 [Accessed February 2022]

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Stephanie Watson
Stephanie Watson is a freelance health and lifestyle writer based in Rhode Island. When she’s not busy writing, Watson loves to travel, try new cuisines, and attend as many concerts, shows, and plays as she can fit into her busy schedule.